The Underground Railroad

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History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family, Heritage, and Home Theme Icon
Endurance vs. Rebellion Theme Icon
Death and Freedom Theme Icon
Value, Ownership, and Commodification Theme Icon
Brutality and Violation Theme Icon
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Underground Railroad, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History, Myth, and Fantasy Theme Icon

The Underground Railroad is a historical novel, and much of what takes place is an accurate representation of what life in mid-19th century America was really like. At the same time, Whitehead also deliberately weaves fantastical and ahistorical elements into the narrative, some of which are more immediately recognizable to readers than others. This decision is a deliberate rejection of the demand that historical fiction realistically and accurately represents the past. By rejecting absolute realism in this way, Whitehead reminds the reader that there is much about the historical reality of black people’s lives in America that is impossible to know, due to the fact that enslaved people were forbidden to read or write. The fantastical aspects of the narrative—such as the Freedom Trail—also emphasize the idea that slavery was stranger (and more horrifying) than fiction, particularly from the perspective of the enslaved people who were forced to endure it.

Whitehead’s deliberately inaccurate use of history also serves as a horrifying reminder of the way in which slavery is not a relic of the distant past, but a markedly recent phenomenon that still affects the present. Cora’s experience in South Carolina is based not on the mid 19th century, but rather on events from the eugenics movement that blossomed in the early 20th century, as well as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment of 1932-1972 and forced sterilization programs that are still inflicted on black women (particularly those who are incarcerated) today. By distorting the course of history in this manner, Whitehead challenges the reader’s assumptions that slavery is confined to the past through showing the institution’s powerful afterlife in the present.

Perhaps the most important fantastical feature of the narrative is the underground railroad itself. While the underground railroad was certainly real, in most cases it was not a literal railroad in the way it is depicted in the novel. Rather, it was a route of safe houses and “station agents” who helped convey enslaved people to freedom through a number of different methods. Enslaved people who escaped to freedom via the railroad did so through every available mode of transportation, including traveling in carts and wagons, on horse, and on foot. (It is worth noting that some critics have overemphasized the idea that the underground railroad was never a literal railroad. Historical evidence suggests that—at least in some places—there was a real railroad devoted to transporting runaways to the north.) By making the metaphor of the railroad into a literal, physical phenomenon, Whitehead questions assumptions about what is “real” and what isn’t when it comes to African-American history. In doing so, he draws attention to the fact that the very notion of black freedom is beyond imagination in a white supremacist context. This idea is particularly emphasized in the character of Ridgeway, who is confounded and infuriated by his continued inability to capture Mabel and Cora.

Beyond the question of historical accuracy of the narrative itself, many of the white characters in the novel remain committed to a mythical, false version of American history. This is best conveyed through the repeated references to the Declaration of Independence, which states that America is founded on the belief that all men are created free and equal. Such a statement is disproven by the reality of slavery and black peoples’ legal status as less than human. In his speech at the last meeting on Valentine, Elijah Lander references the dishonesty and hypocrisy of this American myth by pointing out that the whole country is built on the false belief that white people have a right to steal Indian territory and torture and enslave non-white people. In light of this, black people must commit to their own delusion—the idea of their own freedom. Fantasy and myth are thus shown to have both positive and negative consequences in the novel. Furthermore, the boundary between history and myth is blurred, particularly for black people whose very existence is a threat to the fantasy of white supremacy.

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History, Myth, and Fantasy ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of History, Myth, and Fantasy appears in each Chapter of The Underground Railroad. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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History, Myth, and Fantasy Quotes in The Underground Railroad

Below you will find the important quotes in The Underground Railroad related to the theme of History, Myth, and Fantasy.
Chapter 1: Ajarry Quotes

She knew that the white man's scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations… in America the quirk was that people were things.

Related Characters: Ajarry (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora’s grandmother Ajarry was born in Africa before being kidnapped and transported across the Atlantic to America. Once there, Ajarry is sold many times, and she gradually comes to learn about how enslaved people are valued. In this passage, the narrator compares this knowledge to the scientific research conducted by white scientists. In America, black people’s bodies are commodified, meaning they are turned into objects with which white people can make a profit. This is true in an obvious sense with slavery, but is also true in a less obvious sense when it comes to scientific research.

As the fields of human biology and medicine evolved during the 19th century, many experiments were conducted on black people by white scientists. White supremacy dictated that only white people were intelligent enough to become scientists, whereas black people were thought to be useful only as objects of study. However, this passage disproves this view—even without any formal education, Ajarry comes to understand the “science” of her own body and how she is assigned financial value. Ajarry herself is thus also a scientist, although her knowledge is not considered legitimate within the context of white supremacy.

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To escape the boundary of the plantation was to escape the fundamental principles of your existence: impossible.

Related Characters: Ajarry
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

After being sold many times, Ajarry arrives on Randall where she remains until her death. To Ajarry, this death seemed inevitable, because the possibility of freedom was completely unimaginable to her. This is ironic, of course, as Ajarry is one of the only black characters in the novel who was actually born free and who began life with no knowledge of bondage at all. This quotation introduces the idea that enslavement destroys people’s possibilities in life, not only in a physical sense, but also in a mental and emotional one. It is beyond the imaginative capacity of many people to envision the transformation from enslavement to freedom—to do so is an act of madness, or fantasy.

Chapter 2: Georgia Quotes

Feast or no feast, this was where Cora ended up every Sunday when their half day of work was done: perched on her seat, looking for things to fix. She owned herself for a few hours every week was how she looked at it, to tug weeds, pluck caterpillars, thin out the sour greens, and glare at anyone planning incursions on her territory. Tending to her bed was necessary maintenance but also a message that she had not lost her resolve since the day of the hatchet.

The dirt at her feet had a story, the oldest story Cora knew.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Related Symbols: Cora’s Garden
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

It is Sunday on Randall, and the enslaved community is preparing to celebrate Jockey’s birthday with a feast. Jockey, one of the oldest enslaved people on the plantation, doesn’t know his real birthday, but he picks days at random as excuses for celebration. Lovey asks Cora which day she would pick for her birthday, but Cora dismisses her, saying you can’t choose. Rather than choosing her birthday, Cora exercises autonomy by tending to her garden. Every Sunday, during the precious hours she has away from forced labor, Cora works on maintaining her small plot of land.

At first it might seem strange that Cora, who is forced to spend almost all her time toiling in the fields, would choose to spend her few hours off working in her garden. Why add further labor to a life of bondage? However, as this passage makes clear, tending to the garden gives Cora a sense of control, autonomy, and ownership over her life. Because she spends most of her time being forced to work for others, she finds it rewarding to be able to choose to work towards creating and nurturing new forms of life; this allows Cora to endure the misery of enslavement. Furthermore, through the garden, Cora is connected to her mother and grandmother. The garden is thus one of the only ways Cora can access her dead relatives and the mystery of her ancestry.

They were exiles, but Hob provided a type of protection once they settled

in. By playing up their strangeness, the way a slave simpered and acted childlike to escape a beating, they evaded the entanglements of the quarter. The walls of Hob made a fortress some nights, rescuing them from the feuds and conspiracies. White men eat you up, but sometimes colored folk eat you up, too.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Related Symbols: Hob
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

When Mabel left, Cora was placed in Hob, a cabin for women considered strange and mentally unstable. There is a strong stigma attached to being placed in Hob, and most people on Randall believe it is a curse to become a “Hob woman.” However, this passage indicates that there is also a positive side to be being placed in Hob. Because they are labeled as strange and different, Hob women tend to be left alone and spared the “feuds” and dramas that can make life on Randall even more dangerous than it already is. In this sense, Cora’s experience in Hob highlights the fact that there are both positive and negative sides to belonging to a community, just as there are positive and negative sides to being excluded by a community.

Every slave thinks about it. In the morning and in the afternoon and in the night. Dreaming of it. Every dream a dream of escape even when it didn't look like it. When it was a dream of new shoes.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Lovey
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora and Caesar set off at night, fleeing into the darkness, and they make it some distance before noticing that Lovey has been following them. Cora is surprised by this, as she doesn’t really think of Lovey as someone with a rebellious side. However, this quotation notes that “every slave thinks about it”—“it” meaning freedom—even if these thoughts are not conscious. Enslaved people thus have a paradoxical relationship to freedom. On one hand, the institution of slavery works to shut down the very notion of black freedom in people’s minds. However, as this quotation indicates, even those who have never personally known freedom—and who could never hope to—spend their lives fantasizing about it.

Chapter 3: Ridgeway Quotes

The cotton gin meant bigger cotton yields and the iron tools to harvest it, iron horseshoes for the horses tugging the wagons with iron rims and parts that took it to market. More slaves and the iron to hold them. The crop birthed communities, requiring nails and braces for houses, the tools to build the houses, roads to connect them, and more iron to keep it all running. Let his father keep his disdain and his spirit, too. The two men were parts of the same system, serving a nation rising to its destiny.

Related Characters: Arnold Ridgeway (speaker), Ridgeway Sr.
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Ridgeway is the son of a blacksmith with a gentle, spiritual personality who disapproves of his son’s decision to become a slave catcher. Ridgeway resents his father’s attitude and believes that his father’s views on slavery are hypocritical, because it is through making the metal chains and tools used on plantations that Ridgeway Sr. is able to make a living. This passage explores the moral problem of existing in an economy that is totally fuelled by slavery. While Ridgeway’s father rejects violence and prefers a peaceful, empathetic view of the world, he nonetheless directly profits from the exploitation of slaves.

By representing slavery as an economic system in which everyone is implicated, Whitehead highlights the fact that racist violence is the product of the overall structure of society, rather than individual acts (although, as Ridgeway himself proves, individuals can play a large role in carrying out particularly heinous acts of brutality). Ridgeway’s comment about America’s destiny suggests that all white settlers are to some extent complicit in slavery, even those who personally oppose it.

Chapter 4: South Carolina Quotes

Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible. After landing in South Carolina, she realized that she had banished her mother not from sadness but from rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom's bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell. A child. Her company would have made the escape more difficult, but Cora hadn't been a baby. If she could pick cotton, she could run. She would have died in that place, after untold brutalities, if Caesar had not come along. In the train, in the deathless tunnel, she had finally asked him why he brought her with him. Caesar said, "Because I knew you could do it."

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Mabel
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

In South Carolina, Cora is careful to guard the secret of her true identity. However, she is eventually too tempted by the opportunity to ask Miss Lucy to check the records for any information about Mabel. Overall, Cora still feels furious and resentful toward Mabel, particularly now that she has experienced freedom for herself. How could Mabel have left her to suffer and die on Randall? This passage makes clear that Cora has invented her own mythology about Mabel, just as Caesar has his own fantasy about Cora. Cora is convinced that Mabel needlessly and carelessly abandoned her, and Caesar is convinced that Cora would be able to successfully escape. Although these stories both contain kernels of truth, their main purpose is arguably to provide a sense of assurance to Cora and Caesar as they journey through brutal conditions and the terrifying unknown.

Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood. With the surgeries that Dr. Stevens described, Cora thought, the whites had begun stealing futures in earnest. Cut you open and rip them out, dripping. Because that's what you do when you take away someone's babies––steal their future. Torture them as much as you can when

they are on this earth, then take away the hope that one day their people will have it better.

Related Characters: Dr. Aloysius Stevens (speaker), Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

At the examination conducted by Dr. Stevens, he notes that Cora has had sexual relations and he asks if she has considered being sterilized, adding that, for many black women, sterilization is mandatory. Cora is horrified at having discovered the dark secret beneath life in South Carolina. To her, Dr. Stevens’ words about sterilization fit within the broader “engine” of life in America, which is powered by violence against and exploitation of nonwhite people. Cora’s use of the word “engine” is significant, as it underlines the connection between white supremacy and capitalist industrialism. Science and industry, which are often considered to be good and progressive, are in fact tools through which black people are tortured and killed.

This passage also identifies a crucial way in which white supremacy destroys not only a present generation of the black population, but their hope for the future, as well. Through the traumatic separation of families under slavery and forced sterilization programs, black people were robbed even of the hope that one day future generations might experience freedom for themselves.

Perhaps they would prefer not to know, Caesar said. What were these rumors compared to what they had been freed from? What sort of calculation would their neighbors make, weighing all the promises of their new circumstances

against the allegations and the truth of their own pasts? According to the law, most of them were still property, their names on pieces of paper in cabinets kept by the United States Government. For the moment, warning people was all they could do.

Related Characters: Caesar
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

On discovering the truth of the medical experiments and forced sterilizations that are taking place in South Carolina, Cora and Caesar despair over what they should do. If they attempt to warn the black dormitory residents, it is likely that many would not believe them. Furthermore, even if their revelations were accepted as truth, this would put the residents in an impossible position of choosing the lesser of two absolute evils. While being subject to harmful medical experimentation and forced sterilization is horrific, for most residents it is still an improvement on the brutality of slavery from which they fled.

This dilemma doesn’t represent one particular moment in history—remember that the Tuskegee syphilis experiment on which the South Carolina chapter is based did not occur until the mid-20th century—but rather the repeated injustices to which black people have been subjected throughout American history. The proctors in South Carolina take advantage of the fact that black people in the south are desperate to flee slavery at all costs, and they use that fact to exploit and violate the black population. This represents a long tradition of white people subjecting African Americans to injustice and violation, with the excuse that it is a mild improvement on even worse brutality.

Chapter 6: North Carolina Quotes

At one point the girls started for the attic but reconsidered after a discussion about the habits and customs of ghosts. There was indeed a ghost in the house, but she was done with chains, rattling or no.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie)
Page Number: 156
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora is being hidden in the attic of Martin and Ethel Wells’ house in North Carolina. Only Martin and Ethel know she is there, and when their daughter and her family come to visit, Cora must remain absolutely still and silent so as not to arouse suspicion. At one point, the visitors decide to go up to the attic, but they change their minds after fearing that there is a ghost up there. This quotation explores the idea that Cora is, in some sense, a ghost; this is a statement that could have several possible meanings.

On one level, Cora is ghostlike because of the way in which she disappeared from Randall. Almost everyone who knew her probably believes that she is dead, and, as she cannot communicate with them, there is, in this sense, little difference between death and freedom. Cora is also a “ghost” because of her potential for instilling fear in white people. Although whites do everything in their power to maintain control over black people, this belies the fact that white people are deeply afraid of the black population. As a free black person who fled slavery and will do anything necessary to defend her freedom, Cora is many white people’s worst nightmare.

Cora rarely thought of the boy she had killed. She did not need to defend her actions in the woods that night; no one had the right to call her to account. Terrance Randall provided a model for a mind that could conceive of North Carolina’s new system, but the scale of the violence was hard to settle in her head. Fear drove these people, even more than cotton money. The shadow of the black hand that will return what has been given. It occurred to her one night that she was one of the vengeful monsters they were scared of: She had killed a white boy. She might kill one of them next. And because of that fear, they erected a new scaffolding of oppression on the cruel foundation laid hundreds of years before. That was Sea Island cotton the slaver had ordered for his rows, but scattered among the seeds were those of violence and death, and that crop grew fast. The whites were right to be afraid. One day the system would collapse in blood.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Terrance Randall
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Confined to the attic, Cora is forced to spend many hours without any distraction or human interaction, an experience that forces her to reflect on her memories and concoct fantasies (and nightmares) about the future. While she spends a lot of time turning over the memories of her escape in her mind, she doesn’t often think about the 12-year-old boy she killed during the conflict with the hog hunters. Her experiences since running away have illuminated for her the extent to which she is a manifestation of white people’s greatest fears, and also that it is this fear—even more than economic incentives—that fuels the system of slavery.

This passage explores the way in which this fear both empowers and disempowers Cora and other black people who choose to rebel. On one hand, Cora realizes that white people consider her to be a threat, a fact that emboldens her and convinces her that one day “the system would collapse in blood.” Slavery and white supremacy are not inevitable—they are actually far more fragile than white people make it appear. However, in a more immediate sense, white people react to rebellion with increased brutality, “a new scaffolding of oppression.” This places those who rebel in a difficult position, as they know that not only do they risk their own punishment, but they also risk other vulnerable people being punished in their stead.

Colored labor had erected every house on the park, laid the stones in the fountain and the paving of the walkways. Hammered the stage where the night riders performed their grotesque pageants and the wheeled platform that delivered the doomed men and women to the air. The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Lumbly
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Through the tiny crack in the attic wall, Cora looks down at the town square. Although the town is now all white, black people remain present through the products of their labor. In this quotation, Cora echoes Lumbly’s statement earlier in the novel—“Who builds anything in this country?”—which implies that black labor is the reason that any American infrastructure exists. Although Cora of course always knew that black people were a major component of America’s labor force, it is only through traveling through the country that she realizes the extreme extent to which the entire nation has been constructed through black slave labor. Cora notes the cruel irony of the fact that the only thing in the square black people didn’t build is the tree, which is what the white population uses to lynch black people with.

Chapter 7: Ethel Quotes

Ethel thought that a slave was someone who lived in your house like family but was not family. Her father explained the origin of the negro to disabuse her of this colorful idea. Some maintained that the negro was the remnant of a race of giants who had ruled the earth in an ancient time, but Edgar Delany knew they were descendants of cursed, black Ham, who had survived the Flood by clinging to the peaks of a mountain in Africa. Ethel thought that if they were cursed, they required Christian guidance all the more.

Related Characters: Ethel Wells (née Delany), Edgar Delany
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

This chapter tells the story of Ethel’s childhood. Ethel’s family owned two slaves, a woman named Felice and her daughter, Jasmine. As children, Ethel and Jasmine were best friends who loved playing together and had a relationship “like sisters.” As a result, Ethel grows up with a confused notion of the relationship between enslaved people and their captors, mistaking it for a familial relation. In this passage, Ethel’s father, Edgar, explains to Ethel that she is wrong by telling her a Biblical myth about the origin of black people that was commonly used to justify slavery from a Christian perspective. Many of the abolitionist characters in the novel oppose slavery on Christian grounds, but Edgar’s explanation highlights the fact that many proponents of slavery supported their beliefs from a Christian perspective.

Of course, both Edgar and Ethel have a factually incorrect and racist understanding of the relationship between white people and enslaved black people, although their perspectives take drastically different forms. Ethel’s childlike innocence allows her to acknowledge that intimacy is a big part of the relationship between slave-owners and the enslaved, however what she doesn’t realize is that this intimacy is one-sided, the result of white people forcing their emotional and social desires on black people who have no choice but to accept it.

Chapter 10: Indiana Quotes

How could such a bitter thing become a means of pleasure? Everything on Valentine was the opposite. Work needn't be suffering, it could unite folks. A bright child like Chester might thrive and prosper, as Molly and her friends did. A mother raise her daughter with love and kindness. A beautiful soul like Caesar could be anything he wanted here, all of them could be: own a spread, be a schoolteacher, fight for colored rights. Even be a poet. In her Georgia misery she had pictured freedom, and it had not looked like this. Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), Caesar, Chester, Molly
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

Cora now lives on Valentine farm, a community of free black people who live and work together in Indiana. Cora lives in a cabin with a woman named Sybil and her daughter Molly, and she is moved by witnessing their relationship. She is also astonished by the way in which labor becomes something positive on Valentine, rather than a means of suffering and oppression. Cora’s thoughts highlight the fact that from the outside, there are similarities between Valentine and a plantation. After all, both consist of a community of black people living and performing agricultural work together.

Of course, this similarity belies a fundamental and all-important difference: on the plantation, black people are forced to labor and are not allowed to receive any of the profits of their work. Enslaved people are under constant surveillance by cruel bosses, must adhere to cruel and arbitrary rules, and are forced to endure constant psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. On Valentine, residents work voluntarily and are free to enjoy the bounty of their labor. Perhaps more importantly, the community acts as a loving and cohesive whole, working in solidarity with one another to create “something lovely and rare.”

Cora had come to cherish the impossible treasures of the Valentine farm so completely that she'd forgotten how impossible they were. The farm and the adjacent ones operated by colored interests were too big, too prosperous. A pocket of blackness in the young state. Valentine's negro heritage became known years before. Some felt tricked that they'd treated a nigger as an equal and then to have that uppity nigger shame them with his success.

Related Characters: Cora (aka Bessie), John Valentine
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, while Cora is sitting in the library, John Valentine joins her and the two discuss the future of the farm. Some residents are arguing that the community should move west, while others advocate staying put but kicking out the runaways. Cora is anxious about this latter option, and has expressed her fears to John. While at first Cora had been resistant to feeling too at home at Valentine, she has now settled into life there and forgotten that the premise of the farm—black freedom, self-direction, and happiness—is “impossible” under white supremacy. These thoughts foreshadow Elijah Lander’s speech later in the chapter, in which he encourages Valentine residents to embrace the “delusion” of Valentine, as this is their only hope of achieving freedom and joy in the midst of those who will do everything to destroy the possibility of black success.

We can't save everyone. But that doesn't mean we can't try. Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth. Nothing's going to grow in this mean cold, but we can still have flowers. Here's one delusion: that we can escape slavery. We can't. Its scars will never fade. When you saw your mother sold off, your father beaten, your sister abused by some boss or master, did you ever think you would sit here today, without chains, without the yoke, among a new family? Everything you ever knew told you that freedom was a trick-yet here you are. Still we run, tracking by the good full moon to sanctuary.

Valentine farm is a delusion. Who told you the negro deserved a place of refuge? Who told you that you had that right? Every minute of your life's suffering has argued otherwise. By every fact of history, it can't exist. This place must be a delusion, too. Yet here we are.

And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes––believes with all its heart––that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn't exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.

Related Characters: Elijah Lander (speaker)
Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

At the final meeting of Valentine residents, Mingo has argued for expelling the runaways and “criminals” that live on the farm in order to ensure the farm’s survival and contribute to the project of racial uplift that he argues is only possible through cooperation with and deference to white people. However, in this passage Elijah Lander disputes Mingo’s claims, arguing that while it is true that white supremacy casts black freedom as impossible, it is vital that the residents of Valentine cling on to this “delusion.” Lander’s distinction between useful and harmful delusions is crucial.

The whole foundation of America, in Lander’s view, is a harmful delusion, which, in turn, creates harmful truths. Belief in the necessity and rightness of slavery has created the inescapable reality that no one in America can escape slavery and thus everyone must learn to deal with its consequences. However, this does not mean accepting that enslavement and oppression are the only possible conditions under which black people can live in America. By acknowledging the ugly reality of white supremacy, yet committing to the “impossible” project of black freedom, black people can build a picture of the future on their own terms, a future in which impossible fantasies eventually become reality.